On a recent school day at Mount Nittany Elementary School in State College, Tiffany Myers read a children's book out loud to a class of about 20 fifth graders.
“The story we’re going to read today is called, ‘Red: A Crayon’s Story.’ Just right off the bat, what are you noticing about this crayon that make it different than what you might expect?” Myers, a school counselor, asked.
The story is about how a blue crayon labeled as red overcomes others’ misconceptions and embraces his own unique traits. Students nodded their heads as Myers summed up the lesson.
“We all have lots of things that make us who we are, and we might not be able to recognize those things about somebody else just by looking at them,” Myers said.
Schools nationwide are putting more effort into ensuring students’ mental wellness. That’s in part to benefit learning and growth, but also partially in response to school violence.
Myers said counselors do these lessons about once a month in every classroom. They introduce students to topics like empathy and compassion starting in the first grade. She said, the idea is to teach the basics of mental wellbeing just like other school subjects.
“Just like any academic skill, the more it’s taught and practiced and reinforced in the home and the classroom, the more likely the students are going to be able to draw from that skill and use it,” Myers said.
Jeanne Knouse, the director of student services for the State College Area School District, agreed. She says teachers often have to prioritize curriculum, so school administrators have decided to pick up the role of educating about mental health.
“It has started with building into curriculum, building into awareness, building in some capacity to actually provide service within the school,” Knouse said. “Then, actually evaluating students and finding out where they are and how we can help them.”
Increasingly, schools are prioritizing mental health education and services for students. The National Youth Risk Behavior Surveys show the percentage of U.S. high school students who experienced persistent sadness or hopelessness rose by 3 percent between 2007 and 2017. The number of students who seriously considered attempting suicide rose to one in six. The Center for Disease Control calls both of those increases “significant.”
Bob Gildea, the superintendent of the Hollidaysburg Area School District, said mental health is a priority that’s long been overlooked.
“When you really get down to what our purpose is in education, [our purpose] is to meet the needs of our students,” Gildea said. “That's not just addressing the academic needs of our students, but it's to address the needs of the whole student. And mental health is part of that.”
In 2018, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed Act 44 to address safety issues in public schools, in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. The Act will grant about $60 million to school districts to increase safety.
In the case of ten school districts WPSU spoke to, about half of the districts will use the grant on security measures like radio communications and cameras. The other half will increase mental health resources like hiring social workers.
The school shooting last year in Parkland, Florida, renewed debates over how school violence and mental illnesses correlate. In a March 2018 Gallup poll, about one in five U.S. teachers said more funding for better, more accessible mental health services would prevent school shootings. One in three preferred stricter gun laws.
The Hollidaysburg Area School District currently has a team of eleven counselors and six armed resource officers. Gildea said the district has applied for competitive funding to do universal mental health screenings with students.
Hully Hoover, the chair of the guidance department for the school district, said there are many signs that may suggest a student is struggling.
“If their attendance is starting to be sketchy or they're coming in late or they're sleeping in class or the grades are dropping; if they're not taking as good a care of themselves as they used to or they just don't seem like themselves,” Hoover said those are signs of trouble.
She said common stressors for students include social media, academics, family issues and depression and anxiety. The district has established an advisory team with the participation of teachers, students and parents, so that everybody is in tune when someone needs help.
“If you had a broken leg that's a no brainer, you'd seek help for that. So, your wellbeing should be not looked at any differently,” Hoover said.
State College Area High School senior Jessica Griel said the frequency with which mental health is drawn into discussions of school violence creates misconceptions. She’s a member of the “My Mental Health Matters” club at State High.
Showing off the club’s green buttons, Griel explained what the bird logo means.
“The whole idea of the phoenix is it’s rising out of the ashes,” she said. “A lot of times, mental health can make you feel like you are in the ashes and it’s really bad. We want to encourage people and inspire them to rise out of ashes.”
Her club fundraises during the school year, participates in a suicide prevention program and helps connect students with resources available at the high school to deal with stress. Griel said the club aims to “smash the stigma” around mental health issues.
“Unfortunately, it does happen a lot. People do jump to the conclusion that somebody who’s struggling with mental health is crazy or they can’t control themselves at all,” she said. “And it’s really sad, because it’s just someone that needs help.”
Griel is graduating and heading to the Culinary Institute of America this fall. Having dealt with depression and anxiety, Griel said it’s never an option not to help.
“I have struggled so much in my life, and I’ve lost some people to suicide. I always wanted to help fix it both for myself and the other people who are struggling,” she said.
Griel said it all starts with having meaningful conversations about mental health, and, in reality, many schools are doing that, whether through screening and counseling or with a children’s book.